What led to the trashing of Christmas Island


Public interest in the death and disturbance on Christmas Island has been overtaken by the Paris massacres. But questions remain, posed by the responses by New Zealand and Australian government ministers to the unrest.

An image from Christmas Island detention centre released by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's officePeter Dunne, the New Zealand Internal Affairs Minister, compared the Christmas Island regime to Guantanamo Bay. Peter Dutton, the Australian Minister for Immigration, emphasised the $10 million damage to property caused by violent detainees.

Both responses were partial. At a deeper level the riot was the predictable outcome of a brutal government policy.

The troubles were occasioned by the death of Fazal Chagani, a gentle Kurdish man from Iran who displayed signs of mental illness when he was held in detention centres in Melbourne. Despite that, he was transferred to Christmas Island, as have been many other asylum seekers and people who face deportation from Australia on character grounds.

The Immigration Department defends the removal of people to Christmas Island as a means to free space in mainland centres. It is simply about inventory management. But people detained suspect and fear it as a punitive measure designed to crush their spirits and their resistance to deportation.

Fazal's health deteriorated further on Christmas Island, and he died in circumstances that we may assume will never be fully disclosed.

His death was only the spark that ignited the volatile atmosphere of the Christmas Island Centre. Anger and anxiety breed in detention centres. Not all the people detained are affected: some who have overstayed their visas, return more or less happily to their own nations after a short period.

But many are detained for a long time following their appeal to stay in Australia. They are under intense emotional pressure. Those who have sought protection in Australia from persecution are terrified of being returned to their own nations. Many suffer from mental illness of different degrees of severity. The origins may lie in the experiences that led them to flee, but their illness is intensified by their detention.

They know that they are detained without having committed any crime. This naturally leads to resentment, especially when they share the company of others who were punished for criminal offences. They feel themselves unfairly stained with the same stigma.

A second group of people is detained after being sentenced to more than a year's imprisonment. Many, especially those who have families in Australia and have no connection with their nation of origin, appeal against the decision to deport them and so spend a long time in detention.

They have cause for resentment. They have paid their debt to society, fear return to a place where they may have no family and cannot speak the language, and may find the conditions in detention centres worse than prison. They feel doubly punished.

After the trashing of the Christmas Island facility people belonging to this group have been demonised as violent criminals. That is unfair. Certainly, they include people with mental illnesses, and others who lack control over their response to frustration. They can be a danger to themselves and others, particularly if they have a sense of injustice. But many have been convicted of fraud and white collar crime, drug offences and failure to observe control orders.

In human terms the policy of moving people from the mainland to Christmas Island must be seen as one of a raft of punitive measures designed to deter others and to pressure people to accept repatriation. The process of moving people is designed for security.

Those subjected to it experience it as brutal, like cattle being taken to the abattoirs. It intensifies any mental disturbance and awakens latent fears of what awaits people if and when deported. The transfer also removes many people from their legal advisers and from the friends and relatives whose visits sustain courage and connection. In all respects it is dehumanising.

Peter Dunne followed others who have compared Christmas Island with Guantanamo Bay. They would also see the transfer of prisoners there as rendition.

The comparison is exaggerated, of course. There is no torture on Christmas Island. But the root disregard for the human dignity of the people who are held in these facilities, the despair they feel and their lack of protection under the rule of law, are similar in both places.

In such a regime it is natural for the sense of injustice, the distress caused by prolonged confinement, and the lack of mental balance bred in detention to spill out into violent action. The brutal policy corrupts the judgment and restraint of many affected by it.

Unfortunately it also corrupts the judgment and humanity of those who administer it. It is to be feared that they will respond to the Christmas Island events by introducing measures that in the name of security further confine and demean the humanity of those affected by them.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas Island, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

There is no torture on Christmas Island. The torture on Christmas Island is imprisoning people for life when they have done nothing wrong,
loz | 25 November 2015

I wonder when their term of office expires, can these government officials be tried for crimes against humanity? Whilst it will be a case of too little, too late what can WE as part of humanity actually do? Are we to be just a grain of sand in our shores, rolling with the waves until we are pulled into the sea of discontent and oblivion? What difference has my life made given these signs of the times? I need to know Lord!
Jan | 25 November 2015

It is with distaste that we Australians read the history of transportation of convicted criminals from Britain to the Australian colonies during the formative years of the modern Australian nation. Now modern Australia transports innocent people to off shore Christmas Island and to other nations, currently Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The sins of the fathers ...
Ian Fraser | 26 November 2015

"There is no torture on Christmas Island." There is no explicit torture, but what has been found to break people's spirit and drive them to frustration and despair is to deprive them of hope and meaning in their lives. Solitary confinement has broken the spirit of many who could withstand floggings and physical pain. Later research may well show that the hopelessness and purposeless inflicted on the detainees is more effective in driving them to frustration and despair than other deprivations.
Robert Liddy | 26 November 2015

To Ian. The sins of the fathers..? It is also said--and not without support--that infants are involved in the sins of their parents, not only of the first pair, but even of their own, of whom they were born. Indeed, that divine judgment, "I shall visit the sins of the fathers on their children," definitely applies to them before they come into the New Covenant by regeneration. This Covenant was foretold by Ezekiel when he said that the sons should not bear their fathers' sins, nor the proverb any longer apply in Israel, "Our fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." St Augustine.
AO | 26 November 2015

Hey! What is this "debt to society" these refugees/asylum seekers on Christmas island are supposed to have "paid"? Or are you referring to the bike gang criminals, our home grown felons who are apparently there? And if so, who put them there, for what purpose? Why aren't they in an ordinary prison on mainland?? Fraud, white collar crime(sounds like something priests do) drug and control order offences can cover a wide range of behaviour & are charges open to systemic abuse; they're typically non-violent crimes or crimes of need. Ex: an asylum seeker with little access to legal work or money could easily be tempted into "white collar" or drug related offences. And is it plausible that the vicious rogues our Minister depicts would tear the place apart with fury at the mistreatment and death of a "gentle Kurdish man with signs of mental illness"? Wouldn't it be more in character for them to bully and torment him?
Jillian | 27 November 2015


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